On Thursday I sat in Third Place Books Ravenna, listening to a strained conversation about racism and publishing. A book has just come out, Seattle City of Literature: Reflections from a Community of Writers, edited by Ryan Boudinot, that is part of a bid for Seattle to be named a “Creative City” by UNESCO.
The book’s jacket copy says “it tells the story of books, reading, writing, and publishing in one of the nation’s most literary cities.” But the story it tells is not one that others recognize as the definitive narrative, and my fellow writing group member, Donna Miscolta, has written a response. Published online the night before the panel discussion, her essay notes the many writers of color left out of the narrative, writers like Octavia Butler, Alan Lau, Peter Bacho, Carlos Bulosan, Nisi Shawl, and August Wilson, who gets a passing reference but not a full essay. She says, “In the end, the failure to acknowledge the existence and work of writers of color fails all readers.” (Donna’s essay joins many others on racism in publishing; see, for example, Mali D. Collins and Daniel José Older.)
The person who put Donna’s essay online was Paul Constant, creator of The Seattle Review of Books and writer of the afterword for the book. He immediately responded with his own post in which he apologized: “I didn’t even notice the whiteness at the time. And I absolutely should have.”
Sitting on the panel at Third Place Books, then, were Boudinot, Constant, and two contributors, Sonora Jha and Lesley Hazleton. They were all aware of the controversy, and so they led with it, acknowledging the issue and promising a conversation. That conversation then unfolded — strained, painful, awkward. I felt myself at times wanting to pitch a softball question just to relieve the panelists of their discomfort; of course, I didn’t. Discomfort is often what it takes for us white people to take action. Our comfort with the status quo is part of the problem.
Where I felt myself getting especially frustrated was when panelists were asked to come up with solutions to the problem of inequitable representation. The main solution suggested was the importance of reaching out to communities of color instead of just accepting whatever comes in over the transom. While this may be a good idea, I was struck by how easily such a solution slides into paternalism, how it suggests that the problem lies with the writers of color who are not assertive or diligent enough to get their work into public view. It fails to acknowledge the ways that white privilege functions.
I have spent years addressing institutional racism as an academic; I have taught for over twenty years at Highline (Community) College, where I’ve been involved in many initiatives to diversify the curriculum and faculty. It’s forced me to try to answer questions like these: How can our faculty still be 80% white, even with a decades-long effort to hire more faculty of color and a perception on the part of some white faculty that applicants of color have an unfair advantage? How can so many of our students, over 70% of whom are people of color, still get an associate’s degree and rarely see people like themselves reflected in readings and films, in the images in their textbooks, in the examples used by instructors in class? Last year, when I had to take over the class of an instructor who was fired, I found myself having to teach with a recently published English composition textbook in which close to 90% of the excerpts of professional writing seemed to be by white people. How is this still happening?
I’ve come to believe that, for white people to be part of the solution instead of the problem, we need to understand implicit bias and structural racism. A blog post can’t possibly explore these topics in the complexity they deserve, but I want to try, at least, to add to the answers that were given Thursday night on how we can avoid inequitable representation.
Psychologists at Harvard University have done extensive research on implicit bias, the subconscious tendency to be biased in favor of characteristics associated with power: whiteness, maleness, wealth, heterosexuality, etc. As we begin any project, it’s useful to remind ourselves that we are inherently biased. It’s not a moral failure; it’s the result of living in this culture. Even people of color can be biased toward whiteness; that phenomenon is called internalized racism.
Structural racism refers to the ways racism is built into our systems, institutions, and culture. In Seattle, people of color were not allowed to purchase houses in certain neighborhoods until the 1960s. Friends of mine bought a house in West Seattle in the mid-1990s; when they received the title, they were shocked to see that it prohibited them from selling the house to blacks and Jews. Of course, this restriction was no longer in force, but it was a reminder that structural racism affects us to this day, with opportunities for writers — bookstores, classes, reading series, etc., like most resources in Seattle, concentrated in the whiter north end.
So my suggestions to white people for taking a more equitable approach to projects in the Seattle writing community are to ask these questions:
- Who are the stakeholders and who should be at the planning table? Which voices are louder and which are softer? Do some at the planning table have more power than others, and is that appropriate?
- What criteria will be used to decide who is included (in the anthology, on the panel, etc.)? When criteria aren’t clarified, biases will go undetected.
- How are my own point view and personal networks, inevitably impacted by my whiteness, likely to affect this process? How can I tap into other networks? How can I see from other points of view?
- How are existing structures tending to benefit white people? Assume they are benefiting white people and keep looking at them, trying to figure out how; it’s often hard for us to see structural racism at work because it seems normal to us, but we know it exists because outcomes continue to be racist. Consider policies, access to resources, dominant cultural narratives, the way announcements are worded, where events are held, and so on.
These questions need to be asked at the beginnings of projects, not halfway through when we realize that mostly white voices are being included; such an effort at that point leads to tokenism. Yes, this takes time and energy. But a healthy, deliberate, inclusive, anti-racist process is our best hope for ending with equitable representation.
In fact, no anthology can tell “the story” of literature in Seattle; there are many stories. The question is: which stories are being told?